Starbucks' biggest problem — besides its signature burned coffee — has always been the lack of savory treats available for a nosh. It's difficult to spend six hours in a coffee shop playing Internet poker or working on your never-to-be-published novel and only have slabs of lemon pound cake or tiny packets of sweetened almonds for sustenance.
In the midst of its ongoing financial woes and loss of market share, Starbucks has been groping about for any possible way to drive people back to the stores. Extended hours, pseudo-free Wi-Fi (some restrictions apply), no decaf after noon and now, finally, savory sandwiches at almost all locations, with breakfast "pairings" that started last week.
For $3.95 you can get a cup of Starbucks' signature brew and one of the new "Artisan" sandwiches, or one of the Egg McMuffin knockoffs. Maybe this, I thought, would turn Starbucks into a real neighborhood coffee joint that's worthy of long-term hangout status.
After tasting every piece of savory food on the menu, though, I think they would have been better off with a couple bags of Lender's frozen bagels and a slab of Philly cream cheese.
Egg McStarbucks: There are two standard English muffin sandwiches, both with egg, meat and cheese, the only surprise being the use of turkey bacon in one. You might be fooled into thinking, as you sip a latte and lean on the earth-toned bar, that you'll be getting a better version of what you can find down at the golden arches. Not so.
At their best, both of these are the equivalent of a pre-wrapped sandwich grabbed from under the heat lamp at the local 7-Eleven, an impulse buy to eat after you purchase your daily two-pack of generic cigarettes. The muffin is doughy and forgettable; the meat is pallid and bland; and the egg manages to inspire both culinary horror and science-food loathing. The uniformly yellow hockey puck looks moist and solid, but in your mouth it crumbles into pasty, egg-flavored dust, like astronaut ice cream in reverse.
Artisan Sandwiches: These are immediately more appealing thanks to rolls that have both flavor and a bit of tasty crust, but there's still the egg to contend with. If you do feel the need, stick with the bacon because, as flaccid as those slabs of fat are, the ham is almost as terrifying as the egg. Unwrap that version of the sandwich and your surroundings will fill with the fragrance of artificial maple. Take a bite and all you'll taste are flavors that come from a test tube, in this case likely farmed out to the cut-rate food science sweatshops of Bangalore.
Piadini: These faux-Italianesque concoctions vaguely reference pizza. It seems that Starbucks took whatever artificial ingredients went into the pretend-egg on the sandwiches, crumbled them down, bleached them white, and re-used them as "cheese" on the Piadini. That affront to the senses is almost overcome by sodden mushrooms and the dough wrapper, which was so pale and spongy it made me wonder whether Starbucks bakes all of these in a huge warehouse filled with Easy-Bake Ovens, the 25-watt bulbs filling the cavernous space with an eerie glow.
Cold sandwiches: By this point in the taste test, I'm tired. And afraid. What fresh abomination will I find if I keep on with my task? The cold sandwiches are a return to convenience-store fare, with stale bread, wet luncheon meat and meager fillings. The chicken salad tastes like fennel and has the texture of tofu.
Thankfully, my Char-Bucks grande coffee easily washes the taste of all of this out of mouth. My culinary psyche, though, is still crouched in the shower with a stiff brush, repeatedly mumbling "never again" under its breath as it tries to scrub the texture of the egg from its memory.